Government’s defence of Smokefree repeal – weak, deceptive and embarrassing

2 Dec, 2023 | Media Release

The Government’s strategy to justify it’s appalling roll-back of New Zealand’s world-leading Smokefree law amounts to a campaign of misinformation, Health Coalition Aotearoa co-chair Professor Boyd Swinburn says.

The coalition Government agreed to axe the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Smoked Tobacco) Amendment Act (SERPA) which included three key measures: de-nicotisation of cigarettes, a reduction in retailers and banning cigarettes for the next generation.  

This week, Government ministers, led by Prime Minister Christopher Luxon have repeated the catch cries of “black market”, “ram raids” and “gangs” in a desperate attempt to defend the repeal.

At his first post-Cabinet media conference the Prime Minister rattled off the rehearsed line: “It’s obvious, we just don’t think that having a single store in Northland, being a target for gangs and driving into a bigger black market is actually a good idea.”

In fact, under the legislation there would be 35 tobacco retailers in the Northland region, and those stores would be required to have security measures.

Logically, a reduction in retailers by 90 per cent would result in a huge reduction of potential targets for burglaries and ram raids – which would mean less, not more such crime.

Picking out one of the measures – such as the reduction in retailers – without mentioning the other parts of the law is likely to mislead voters.

“The truth is that these measures were designed to work as part of a cohesive policy package to eradicate the commercial supply of smoked tobacco from Aotearoa,” Auckland Univesity Professor and HCA Smokefree Expert Advisory Panel member Chris Bullen said.

Reducing levels of nicotine in cigarettes (denicotisation) to very low levels would dramatically reduce their addictiveness, and encourage existing smokers to quit.

This measure would drive consumption and demand down, and make all tobacco markets – legal and illegal – almost worthless.

Reinforcing these two measures by ending supply of cigarettes to those born on or after January 1, 2009 (commonly known as the Smokefree generation) would further drive down demand for the products from possible future markets.  Protecting future generations from the unethical tactics of big tobacco is paramount for their health and welbeing.

Another tactic taken by the Government is to omit any reference to the inequity in smoking rates, and the disproportionate and significant harms to Māori and Pacific peoples from smoked tobacco.

Associate Minister of Health Casey Costello told Newshub this week: “…we’re talking about a smoke free generation when our target is 5 per cent. We’re currently tracking at 8 per cent. So we’re talking about continuing, moving forward to that 5% level, which was the target of the smokefree legislation.

While rates of smoking have reduced to 8 per cent across the whole population, they remain significantly higher for Māori (19 per cent) and Pacific peoples (18.3 per cent). At the current rate of decline it will be about 30 years before these populations reach the SmokeFree 2025 goal of less than 5 per cent.

The New Zealand health sector – supported by international allies – is committed to sustained protest to save our world-leading Smokefree law from repeal, following the new Government’s shocking deal announced a week ago.

Nearly 20,000 people have signed a petition to stop the repeal.

Contributions to a campaign fund are flowing in and a rally “Our future: Up in Smoke” hosted by HCA member Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, Toi Mata Hauora will be held in Wellington on December 13.

Swinburn said the fight to retain the Smokefree law is a moral obligation for all New Zealanders because thousands of lives are at stake and the justifications proposed by the Government are baseless.

For more information about tobacco in Aotearoa, smoking rates and Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Smoked Tobacco) Amendment Act (SERPA) see our Backgrounder here.

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